Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets Nos. 1–3.
Royal Str Qrt
HYPERION 67943 (59:24)
Krzysztof Penderecki was probably more responsible for bringing tonality back into fashion among contemporary composers than anyone else. I sometimes joke with friends, claiming to have been writing tonal music before it was fashionable. Whether you like this trend or not, don’t credit or blame me, though—I’m obviously far too obscure to have
influenced anyone—but credit/blame the music master from Poland. The present CD gives the listener an opportunity to hear Penderecki’s music before
after his c. 1975 “conversion.” I know one critic on the roster of this magazine who decidedly prefers the “after” Penderecki, and another that very likely prefers the “before.” I like this composer’s music in
styles, and recognize the same brilliant mind at work in both. The earlier style was known in Poland as “sonorism,” wherein bars were measured in time (e.g., one-second intervals), rather than meter, and which attempted through new sounds and effects to break radically from the traditional construction of musical works. Both of Penderecki’s first two quartets utilize this approach.
So, on to the CD in hand: it is very nice to have all three of Penderecki’s works in the string quartet medium available on one CD. The first quartet dates from 1960, the same year of his even better-known
Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima
that launched the young composer into the consciousness of the music world. The Quartet, constructed in two “panels,” opens with a very percussive section that calls upon the players to engage in a lot of thumping upon their instruments. I am confident that no sounds such as these ever were required previously in any string quartet. Other devices include pressure scratches (produced by applying greater-than-usual pressure upon the bow, and less-than-usual bow speed across the string),
col legno batutto
(striking the strings with the wooden part of the bow), pizzicato as high as possible on the string, and the use of silence
Cage. The second panel features the ensemble in a more uniform light, wherein varying textures are explored in sound blocks. Special effects, such as playing on the tail pieces of the instruments, are also utilized in this section. The Royal String Quartet provides a most vigorous rendition of the intricacies of this brief work. I compared theirs to the performance by Musica da Camera on the Wergo label, and found both performances compelling, but the Hyperion recording possessed a greater resonance that I slightly preferred.
Penderecki waited eight years before coming back to the string quartet medium. The Second Quartet is also filled with non-conventional sounds that resemble whistling and ghostly murmurings. Glissandos are more prominent in this Quartet, as are
interjections of tone clusters, and the piece dies away with a downward glissando on the lowest string of the cello produced by loosening the peg—a very effective way to end the piece. The Second Quartet, at eight minutes, is only about a minute longer than the First. Penderecki not only evidenced a keen ear for instrumental color in these two works, but also a good sense in what the ear could comprehend in one sitting, wisely limiting the duration of these complex works. Once again, the Royal String Quartet tackles this work with all the conviction that it is as great a masterpiece as the quartets of Beethoven or Bartók.
The Third Quartet, written in 2008, 40 years after the Second, comes well into the era of the new Penderecki, although it’s not as tonal as some works (e.g., his Second Symphony) in his more recent style. This Quartet, like many of the composer’s more recent works, has an underlying pathos that is at once gripping and haunting. Its expressiveness would seem to originate in the depths of the human soul. It is also several minutes longer than the first two quartets combined, as there is far more in this Quartet for the listener’s ear to relate to in terms of form and development. It is, however, no less imaginative in its construction than are Penderecki’s first two essays. Rather than utilizing long, highly-developed ideas, the composer brings to bear a rather atomistic approach in this work. Brief motives, such as interplay of the interval of a minor third, or a recollected Gypsy tune, come and go, but nevertheless succeed in driving the one-movement work to its conclusion. The subtitle is “Leaves of an Unwritten Diary,” which seems appropriate for the construction of the work as I’ve described it. The typical diary is not a directly-connected series of events, but a portrayal of various days’ activities. The connection is there, but primarily because the events are occurring to the same person in a chronological fashion, and not necessarily because they have any intrinsic connection to each other.
Witold Lutoslawski was not a prolific composer, and his String Quartet that fills out this disc is his only excursion into the medium. It has, by now, established itself in the international repertory, as have most of this composer’s works. Both this work and the First Quartet of Penderecki were premiered by the LaSalle Quartet, who recorded these works twice, once each for Muza and DGG. The construction of the piece is quite novel, even by standards of the day, for there is initially no score (a score was eventually prepared by the composer’s wife). The players are required to perform their parts independently of each other within set focal points to produce what Lutoslawski called a “mobile character.” There are places along the way where the performers synchronize with each other, but the synchronization is momentary. Needless to say, this technique insures that no two performances of the work will be exactly the same. (One might think that this would prevent editing within sections, but perhaps not). Its two movements are entitled “Introductory” and “Main,” with the second movement being about twice the length of the first. The work opens with a “monologue” by the first violin that lasts about two minutes. The other instruments eventually join in, but the proceedings are frequently interrupted by octave Cs in the cello and other instruments. The piece is replete with other devices that include whisperings, disjunct flurries of pizzicatos, flutterings, and sections where vibrato is foregone. The total experience is gripping, especially in the fine performance by the Royal String Quartet, which captures every nuance of the score.
On all levels—those of the music, performance, and recording—this Hyperion issue is an important one, and receives an unqualified recommendation to any and all who are interested in seminal works of our era.
FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
Works on This Recording
Quartet for Strings no 1 by Krzysztof Penderecki
Royal String Quartet
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1960; Poland
Quartet for Strings by Witold Lutoslawski
Royal String Quartet
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1964; Poland
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